Next to ‘To be or not to be’, this line has got to be Shakespeare’s most famous line in all his plays. Yet, for so simple a line, it is so frequently misunderstood and misrepresented in performance. Let’s dig into this essential monologue of Juliet’s from Act 2, Scene 2, and see what we can discover.
As always, you’ve got to read the play, but in case you’ve missed the story of Romeo and Juliet, here’s what you need to know. Juliet is a member of the Capulet family. Romeo is a Montague. They both live in Verona, and those two families have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. One night, there’s a party at the Capulet mansion, Romeo and his mates gatecrash. The plan is for the Montague boys to go to the party to have a few laughs and hopefully remind Romeo that there are other fish in the sea (he’s in love with this gal called Roseline) but instead what happens is the cosmic collision of Romeo and Juliet. These two see each other and instantly fall in love. Within the space of 15 minutes, they have kissed and subsequently have learned who the other truly is – a sword enemy. It’s really a hot mess. Juliet’s speech we’re looking at takes place on the same night, after the party. She is lamenting Romeo’s parentage and the cruelty of fate.
Other Things to Consider
It’s also worth noting that Romeo DEFINITELY feels the same way. He’s actually listening to this speech, he’s hidden in the garden below Juliet’s balcony where this soliloquy (and scene) takes place. It’s a wonderful moment of dramatic irony where the audience knows of Romeo’s eavesdropping but Juliet doesn’t.
It’s also worth noting that Juliet is 13 years old. She has never known love, and has publicly expressed her lack of interest in marriage to her parents. This first meeting with Romeo has really revolutionised her world-view. It’s safe to say there’s kinda a lot going on for her at this moment. Let’s look at the text.
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Capulet: Juliet’s surname. She is a member of the Capulet family, Romeo is a Montague.
Oh Romeo, Romeo, WHY are you ROMEO?
Discard your parents and disown your name.
Or if you won’t do that, tell me you love me and I’ll no longer be called Capulet.
It’s only your name that is my enemy:
You are yourself. You are not ‘a Montague’.
What is Montague?! It isn’t a hand or a foot
or an arm or a face, or any other part of a man’s body.
Oh just call yourself something else!
What’s so significant about a name, anyway.
The flower called ‘Rose’ would smell as sweet no matter what it’s name was.
Just like Romeo would if he wasn’t called Romeo keep that perfection
he possesses even without his name.
Romeo, get rid of your name, and in its place take all of me.
Let’s first and foremost clear up the elephant in the room. I’ve already mentioned it a few times on this page, both in the unfamiliar language and the modern translation, but here’s a bit of further clarity. Wherefore means why. Juliet is not looking for Romeo. She has NO idea that he’s in the Capulet orchard right now. The orchard has really high walls and guards that would kill Romeo on sight. As far as Juliet is concerned, she is alone with the stars and the night sky. This is a really important point, because her isolation is the one thing which allows her to be so honest for the audience.
Juliet is asking why Romeo is who he is. She has gone from experiencing the most intense, mind blowing experience of love at first sight to plummeting to the depths of despair in learning that Romeo is the one person she is not permitted to love.
Act 2 scene 2, often called ‘The Balcony Scene’ for its setting, is one of the most iconic and wonderful scenes to watch in the whole play, perhaps in the whole of Shakespeare’s canon. From the actors it required a certain level of devotion and submission to the grandeur of the situation. To Romeo and Juliet, this situation IS life or death. As we tread more and more into modernising Shakespeare, there lies a risk that we normalise or trivialise the stakes of this scene. We’re all woke 21 century people who have more realistic expectations about love and relationships, but we must be careful of letting our own values stomp all over the desperation and beautiful naïveté of this scene. In my opinion, without an effective version of this soliloquy and this scene, there really isn’t a play. This scene and the performances given are what the whole scene hinges on. (No pressure).
So, allow yourself to GO THERE. tap into passion, tap into desperation. It isn’t ‘a bit of a nuisance’ that Romeo is a Montague, it’s literally the end of the world. The stakes need to be that high.
Declan Donnellan, in his book the Actor and the Target explores this scene and the character of Juliet wonderfully, I’d highly recommend it. He talks about stakes as a duality: what does Juliet stand to gain, and what does she stand to lose. You need to answer this question yourself, but if the stakes aren’t as dramatic as “I stand to gain the one thing that gives meaning to my existence and I stand to lose everything I’ve ever loved and cared about”, you may need to dig a little deeper.
Donnellan would also encourage the actor playing Juliet to focus on her Targets, and to see through Juliet’s eyes. There is a risk that this soliloquy becomes internal and introspective- resist this temptation. Bring the words out, play an objective, seek to have an effect on the targets around you, even if the only targets she can find are The Sky or Fate, for example.
Make it GRAND. Enjoy the pleasure of Shakespeare at it’s finest and most iconic. Shakespeare, as with most storytelling, is life with the boring bits taken out. There’s nothing mundane or pedestrian happening here. For Romeo and Juliet at this moment, the rest of the world has ceased its rotation. This moment means everything to them. Embrace that, it’s your job, it’s your privilege.